The New England Patriots have a long list of 13 unrestricted free agents, three restricted free agents, and three exclusive-rights free agents, but you can be certain that head coach Bill Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio will kick the tires on all the players on the open market.
Pro Football Focus (PFF) lists Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower as a “must re-sign” caliber player, noting that “the Patriots lack a productive linebacker outside of Hightower, and if they lose the former first-round pick, it could become their biggest position of need.”
PFF also tried to help out by narrowing down the list of candidates for the Patriots with some five players that could be ideal fits in New England.
Panthers DL Kawann Short
“The Patriots never make splash free-agent signings, but if they were to make one, Kawann Short would provide an immediate upgrade to a defensive line that lacked a true disruptive overall player. Short’s ability to stuff the run and get after the quarterback would be lethal for New England.”
The Patriots have two separate types of defensive interior players. They have run stuffers, like Alan Branch and Malcom Brown, and then they have pass rushers, like Trey Flowers. Short would present a perfect mix of the two and allow the Patriots to keep a defensive tackle on the field on passing downs, instead of substituting to a smaller defensive package.
Short is expected to be one of the highest-paid defensive tackles in the league, though, so PFF acknowledges that this is a major reach. Perhaps a rookie like Michigan State’s Malik McDowell or Michigan’s Chris Wormley would be a good alternative in the draft.
Texans EDGE John Simon
“Simon is a player that is overshadowed by several great players on the Texans’ defense, but produced at a solid level for three straight seasons. He was on his way to his best season yet before injury cut his 2016 campaign short. A solid all-around player, Simon would be utilized perfectly in New England.”
Simon played well within the Texans defense, which means that he would also probably thrive in the Patriots defense. The 26-year-old Simon is stuck deep in the Houston depth chart and could see greater opportunity with the Patriots. New England might need a new pass rusher in the rotation with Rob Ninkovich getting up in age and both Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long free agents.
Titans TE Anthony Fasano
“Fasano is one of the best run-blocking tight ends in the NFL, and with Martellus Bennett potentially leaving via free agency and Rob Gronkowski’s injury history, the Patriots need a reliable option. Fasano isn’t exactly a receiving threat, but Tom Brady brings out the best in his players.”
Fasano turns 33 years old in April so he certainly isn’t the answer at the position, but he could be a veteran that helps as the #2 tight end in a blocking capacity and could chip in as a receiver in a pinch.
Fasano only recorded 8 receptions for the Titans in 2016, though, so he might only be a blocking tight end at this stage in his career- but that might be what the Patriots want early in the season if New England invests an early draft pick in a deep class of tight ends.
Titans LB Sean Spence
“If Hightower leaves via free agency, the Patriots will have a gaping hole at linebacker after also trading away Jamie Collins. With Spence, the Patriots fill the void with a veteran that has underperformed in Tennessee, but has shown improvement each of the past three seasons. Spence was effective as a pass-rusher in 2016, as he racked up three sacks and four hits and Belichick likes to rush his LBs.”
After the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Spence in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft, Spence did not play in his first two seasons in the league due to a series of injuries. Former Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau brought Spence along to his new gig in Tennessee.
Spence is 5’11, 230 pounds, so he is smaller than Belichick’s ideal linebacker and has battled a lot of injuries. He might not be worth the risk.
Raiders RB Latavius Murray
“Belichick has always employed a bigger halfback in his time in New England (think guys like Antowain Smith and LaGarrette Blount). With Blount aging and hitting free agency, Murray would be the perfect replacement. Murray equaled Blount’s average yards after contact the past two years and has shown solid ball control in his career.”
What if LeGarrette Blount was younger, more explosive at the line, had breakaway speed, was a capable pass protector, and could catch the ball? That’s what you get with the 6’3, 230 pound Murray and his 4.38s 40 yard dash speed. Murray won’t make anyone miss, but he’s going to the end zone if he gets a crease and he can generate as much yards after contact as Blount, then what’s the negative?
Well, sometimes athleticism is too hyped up. Murray’s 241 carries on first down ranks 12th in the league over the past two season (Blount’s 285 ranks 4th), but of the 50 players with 100+ carries, Murray ranks an awful 46th with 3.50 yards per carry. If you think Blount can be infuriating on first down, at least his 4.09 YPC on first down ranks a near-average 29th.
And then it’s even worse when you factor in contract value. While running backs are devalued around the league, Murray is absolutely going to receive more money than Blount on the open market. Blount is going to be much more affordable than Murray, even if his upside is lesser.
What do you think of these five free agents?